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Scenes redeem subplot excess

Complicated crime novel, spanning decades in Dublin, features virtuoso hard-boiled prose.

By Declan Hughes

Morrow. 312 pps. $25.99

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Reviewed by Bill Kent

Pick a voice, a hero, a setting, and a plot, and stick with them.

This unwritten rule has been broken so many times by so many great writers - William Faulkner, Ken Kesey, and Thomas Pynchon among them - to reveal a complicated vision that traditional, law-abiding storytelling cannot convey.

In mystery fiction, writers should consider respecting this custom because the genre's appeal has always been a hero's journey to the truth. Even if the truth tastes bitter - the hero ends up on a hospital bed or the bad guy gets away (to return in a sequel!) - we feel the journey was worth it. Add too many narrative voices, pile on the subplots, and jump around from past to present, and the hero, like Declan Hughes' hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-boiled private investigator Ed Loy, seems to lose his way.

Hughes begins nearly 30 years in the past, with two IRA hit men crouching beside a road in South Armagh, awaiting the arrival of a car they intend to blow up. One, called Ice, has no emotional qualms about this, or any, act of terrorism. For him, it's all about protecting his own.

The other bomber, Red, sees this act as one of many that will tip a balance, right wrongs, and bring a better world. And we almost want to believe him, until Ice and Red blow up the wrong car. Hughes hangs his complicated crime novel on how these two very different men cope with the consequences.

We zoom to the present, where Ed Loy is at a soccer match, looking out for Paul Delaney, the younger brother of Dessie Delaney, a former mobster and friend of Loy's, who has cleaned up his act and opened up an Irish pub on a Greek island. Before Loy can enjoy the game, a guy whose face is hidden by a balaclava sprays machine-gun fire over the crowd, and makes a quick getaway. Loy finds Paul cringing but safe. Paul then tells Loy he can fend for himself.

So Ed goes back to his solitary home/office to meet the attractive, conveniently divorced Anne Fogarty to find out who killed her father, Brian Fogarty, 15 years ago. Anne's mother's lover, a teacher at a nearby school, was sent to jail for the crime, but was set free on a procedural technicality, and the police have not reopened the case.

Anne thinks Brian Fogarty's death may have been the result of his habit, as the Irish equivalent of an Internal Revenue Service auditor, of finding suspicious paper trails about local ne'er-do-wells who are not being adequately investigated, and threatening them with leaks of incriminating information to the media unless they pay their fair share of taxes.

Fogarty had threatened three individuals before he was killed: sociopathic drug lord (and former IRA strongman) Jack Cullen; luxury housing developer Bobby Doyle; and George Halligan, whose brother Leo, another Dublin drug lord, Ed Loy handed over to the police in a previous book.

After fending off Anne's advances (it's a given that male detective heroes are irresistible to certain kinds of women, but must it happen so quickly?), Loy calls his cop buddy and finds out that the Fogarty case is dead and that three people Fogarty threatened have been considered such pillars of the community that they would never be called to account for back taxes.

Loy visits Ray Moran, an accountant who launders Jack Cullen's money. Moran doesn't recall an incriminating letter from Brian Fogarty, and, if Cullen saw it, he'd handle it in a way that didn't involve leaving a corpse in a kitchen for Fogarty's youngest daughter to discover.

Then Loy is assaulted by two knife-wielding young toughs, whom he beats up and leaves alive. Within a few hours, those toughs are found dead, stabbed with the knife Loy took away from them. As if that weren't enough, Paul Delaney has been murdered, too, shot in a very expensive sports car that he could not afford on the salary paid to minor-league soccer players.

Add to this a third subplot: Lamp Comerford, Jack Cullen's enforcer, wants Loy to find a snitch in the Cullen organization who is betraying drug shipments to the government. If Loy refuses, the knife that killed those two toughs will be given to the police, who will find Loy's fingerprints on it.

All this happens on the Wednesday and Thursday of Easter week. By Easter Sunday, Ed Loy will have taken enough punches to knock out an elephant, consumed enough gin and stout to kill a horse, and had the kind of passion-pounding sex that makes temporary celibacy seem a blessing not strictly confined to the priesthood.

He also will cause at least one murder, be framed for another, uncover a twisted tragedy of perverted lust, have an excellent steak dinner at a splendid Dublin restaurant, be forced at gunpoint to bury two corpses, and then find himself arrested by the police who, though they have enough evidence to lock him up forever, set him free to protect their relationship with the vile Jack Cullen.

This is more than enough plot to fill three books, and if this were Hughes' debut mystery, it could be excused as the overheated exuberance of a first-timer. With three other Ed Loy books under his belt, Hughes might find something more to show us than a Dublin clotted with drug dealers, brutal IRA terrorists, corrupt cops, and femmes fatales who can't wait for the wrong guy to walk into their lives.

But Hughes also gives us moments that redeem his excesses, such as the astonishing scene in which one of the many villains steps into a pub, announces that he has blood on his hands, and submits to a fate just as vicious and barbarous as any that he has dealt his victims for so many years.

And Hughes fashions virtuoso hard-boiled prose, like this passage:

"There's a reckoning you make with history, a reasonable settlement that makes demands but leaves you with your dignity. And then there's a kind of morbid fascination that borders on obsession, a grave-robbing disorder that fills your every waking moment with memories and echoes and dust. . . . I'd seen it in other people, a kind of living death, where all possibility of change is weighed in terms of what has gone on before, and quickly discounted as an insult to the memory of things past. And when I looked into the mirror, or, having stopped looking, when I caught my reflection in the rearview, I saw the same dead eyes telling me that my race was run, that there was nothing new under the sun except the next job of work, the next faithless woman, the next empty glass."

That, and a climax in which Loy finds himself in the right place at the right time to bring an end to the cycle of killing, makes this book worth the price of admission.